Free Speech on Trial in Austria ... and Europe

The “hate speech” trial of the Austrian housewife and anti-Islam activist Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff resumed at a Vienna courthouse on January 18, following a two-month break in the hearings. Sabaditsch-Wolff, who has been charged with “incitement of hatred” and “denigrating religious teachings” after giving a series of seminars about the dangers of radical Islam, faces a possible three year prison sentence. Her case, which is eerily similar to the one involving the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, reflects the growing use of lawfare, the malicious use of European courts to silence politically incorrect speech about Islam.

Sabaditsch-Wolff’s legal problems began in November 2009, when she presented a three-part seminar about Islam to the Freedom Education Institute, a political academy linked to the Austrian Freedom Party. A glossy left-wing magazine called NEWS -- all in capital letters -- planted a journalist in the audience to secretly record the first two lectures. Lawyers for the publication then handed the transcripts over to the Viennese public prosecutor's office as evidence of hate speech against Islam, one of the officially recognized religions under Austrian law. Formal charges against Sabaditsch-Wolff were filed in September 2010 and her bench trial, presided by one judge and no jury, began on November 23.

One the first day of the trial, however, it quickly became apparent that the case against Sabaditsch-Wolff was not as air-tight as prosecutors had made it out to be. For example, the judge pointed out that only 30 minutes of the first seminar had actually been recorded. The judge also noted that some of the statements attributed to Sabaditsch-Wolff were offhand comments made during breaks and were not a formal part of the seminar. Moreover, only a few people heard these comments, not 30 or more, the criterion under Austrian law for a statement being “public.” In any case, Sabaditsch-Wolff says her comments were not made in a public forum because the seminars were held for a select group of people who had registered beforehand.

More importantly, however, many of the statements attributed to Sabaditsch-Wolff were actually her quoting directly from the Koran and other Islamic religious texts. Fearing that the trial would end in a mistrial, the judge abruptly suspended hearings until January 18, ostensibly to give the judge time to review the tape recordings, but also to give the prosecution more time to shore up its case.

In more ways than one, the case (or show trial, as many are calling it) in Vienna against Sabaditsch-Wolff is similar to the one in Holland involving Geert Wilders.

Viewed broadly, both trials represent landmark cases that likely will establish the limits of free speech in countries where the politically correct elite routinely seek to silence public discussion about the escalating problem of Muslim immigration.

Viewed more narrowly, the accusers of both Sabaditsch-Wolff and Wilders are resorting to extra-legal shenanigans to make their charges stick.

For example, the trial against Wilders, who faces five charges of inciting racial and religious hatred for criticizing Islam, was abruptly ended in October 2010 after it emerged that one of the judges presiding over the trial tried to influence an expert witness to testify against Wilders. In that case, a hastily convened judicial panel agreed with Wilders that the judges were biased against him and ordered a retrial, sending the closely watched case back to square one before an entirely new panel of judges. Wilders, who called the trial a farce, a disgrace, and an assault on free speech, welcomed the decision, saying: “This gives me a new chance with a new fair trial.”